Can I Be an Effective Teacher and an Effective Leader?

Many teacher leaders have been faced with the question: Can I be an effective teacher and an effective leader at the same time? 

Fayette County Public Schools teacher Sherri McPherson works the red carpet at Think It Up! 

When I first started teaching in the early 90s, I knew if I wanted to advance my career or increase my income, I would have to leave the classroom and move into administration. However, within the last decade, administrative roles within many schools have been restructured to provide teachers with leadership roles that bear the professional authority of a principal or department chair.  These newly formed hybrid roles are known as teacher-leaders. These roles allow teachers to continue to teach full or part time, while also occupying a leadership role which may allow them to acquire new skills, hold a governance position, or provide increased income from other professional opportunities.

With this shift, many teacher leaders have been faced with the question: Can I be an effective teacher and an effective leader at the same time? CTQ blogger Justin Minkel posed a similar question in Does Teacher Leadership Hurt Your Teaching regarding the hybrid role of being a teacher and a leader.

One common concern about teacher leaders is that once a teacher becomes a leader, he or she ceases to be teacher.  As the argument goes, a teacher’s energy, attention, and time are consumed by the demands of leadership. That same energy, attention, and time is no longer spent on students and the ever-growing demands of the classroom.  There is a perception that teacher leaders lose their focus and are “out of the building” more than they should be.

However, as many teacher leaders will tell you, their professional leadership roles have buoyed and energized their life as a teacher, instead of depleting or detracting from it. Being a teacher leader does come with professional demands, such as presenting at conferences or attending professional development sessions that may occur during the school day. But the benefits of professional growth far outweigh the costs in time and energy.

In a very informal and unscientific poll, I emailed twelve teacher leaders in four different Kentucky districts. These were full-time classroom teachers, who also hold positions in district, regional, state, and national professional organizations.

All but one of them responded, and of those who responded, all but one of them reported being out of school for more than five days in the past school year. However, the part of the poll that resonated with me most was the passionate way in which each of these teacher-leaders talked about their work.

Sherri McPherson, a teacher-leader in the Fayette County school district, was recently showcased on a special one-hour broadcast, Think It Up.  This national education initiative highlighted her work with the Gates Foundation’s Literacy Design Collaborative.  She has been a teacher leader for five years, and on the average she has been out of her classroom only four-six days during each academic year for professional obligations. She says, “As a Literacy Design Collaborative implementer, my leave was focused on learning how to create reading and writing experiences that were rich and worthy of my students’ time. The time to collaborate with my colleagues across the United States, who also teach tenth grade English, helped me widen my instructional tools and strategies. My LDC work provided my students the added benefit of being on national television, an experience that probably wouldn’t have happened without my leaving the class for training.”

Taking time off from their role in the classroom to present at national and regional conferences helps these leaders become better teachers.  McPherson said, “I’m able to share with my students the very real skills I learn as a presenter: how to write a proposal, how to blog, how to handle nerves when you present, and how to collaborate using technology. All of these skills help me attain credibility with my students. They know I am doing the same things I am asking them to do in class. I talk the talk and walk the walk.”

Vicki Moriarity, who teaches for the Bath County school district and is a program coordinator for the National Writing Project, said, “When I serve in a leadership role outside of my district, I receive so many terrific ideas from other teacher leaders I can bring right back to my classroom and use with my students.  Additionally, it allows me to be a change agent in curriculum for my school and district.  I see a much bigger picture of where education is going and take an active voice in policy making that effects what I am doing in my classroom.”

All of the teachers I spoke with indicated that in addition to the training they receive from being a part of professional organizations, they are also part of a larger network of like-minded professional partners around the United States from whom they can ask for advice or assistance when acquiring resources, materials, or programming.

And, like all good teachers, the bottom line in becoming a leader was how their role as a leader underscored and supported their role as a teacher.  McPherson says, “Several of my students were able to participate in the Stand With Students rally last year because, as a teacher voice advocate, I am also a student voice advocate. How can I ask my students to stand up for themselves, when I am not engaging in that professional work myself?”



  • ElizabethWerkau

    So Helpful!

    Thank you so much for this blog. I am currently in my teacher leadership program and one of my biggest fears is how will I balance my classroom responsibilities and my leadership roles. But after reading this, I realize that it isn’t about the balance because that is something teachers do well but incorporating what I do as a leader within my classroom and vice versa. In my class, we read about so many teacher leaders that we no longer in the classroom and I just didn’t understand how they could stay current and truly apply what they are teaching, when they aren’t in the trenches themselves. But after reading what you wrote it verified how teacher leaders should continue in the classroom and that it won’t take away from their students. 

  • KG0688

    juggling act

    I also found this blog to be very helpful as well as inspiring. I too am a classroom teacher (3rd grade) and have just started my first Teacher Leadership Masters class. As I began to learn what a teacher leader is and how to be an effective teacher leader, I often became overwhelmed just thinking of how I would balance being an effective teacher in the classroom and an effective leader to my colleagues. Your blog gave me reassurance! As teachers it’s as if we are ingrained to multi task and juggle so many things successfully. I think being a teacher leader is one more thing we juggle but is the most beneficial. It provides the most professional growth that we can then bring into our classrooms.

  • marsharatzel


    I was reading your post and reading the comments.  What occurred to me was this…if I’m a curriculum teacher leader, being absent from the classroom may not impact my students too much.  It sounds as if I’m a pretty efficient teacher and may know ways in which to compact timeframes which is why I’m a curriculum teacher leader.

    Is that true if I’m not so involved in curriculum leadership?

    I think about being involved in, let’s say, a licensure committee at the state department level.  Would the benefit of my absence be counterbalanced with what I could and would bring back to my students?

    I don’t know the answer to this question.  But reading what was said just brought this question to mind.

  • JuliaStern

    Interesting Read

    I was drawn to this blog because this is the exact question that I have been wondering about.  I am taking my first Teacher Leader course and I have been hesitant to continue on in the program because I don’t want leadership roles to get in the way of my teaching.  This helped me to see how many teacher leaders are able to balance their leadership roles and teaching responsibilties.  I also like how you included that participating in leadership roles actually helped many teachers with new ideas for their teaching practice.

  • NatalieThompson

    Also in agreement

    I too am in a teacher leadership position.  Last year I primarily stuck with coaching and stepped out of the classroom as a primary teacher, but assisted teachers and students at multi-grade levels, focusing mostly on the RtI population.  This year I am co-teaching with a colleague that hasn’t taught the subject matter in years, so looks to me to take the lead.  I have been loving it!  I have been able to use the experiences I have gained from other teacher classrooms, workshops and professional development to put into practice.  It has increased my teaching experience ten fold.  Very nice article.  Include me as part of your “very informal and unscientific poll”.  My time out of the classroom has proven to be invaluable.

  • Katie Helwink

    Different Types of Teacher Leaders

    I think it is so important for teachers to continue learning and growing their expertise in teaching.  When we share with our students what we are learning, they learn from us that learning doesn't stop when you graduate from school.  We are life-long learners.  What a great message to send to your students.  

    However, I think we also need teacher leaders that are available during the school day.  It is too challenging to support and understand what teachers are struggling with when you have a classroom of students. Our coach is also a teacher and I notice her struggling to balance a coaching position and a teaching position.  I believe she would be more effective if she could focus on one position. 

  • benowens

    Actions (not title) = Leader

    This is a great and timely post! We have got to change the mindset that teaching and leading are “either-or” propositions. Having had the privilege of working in highly effective organizations in my career as a teacher and in my previous life in the manufacturing environment, I am fully convinced that leadership can happen from anywhere within an empowered organization. Simply put, leadership does not come from a title or a position. Leadership comes from actions. It comes from holding yourself to high expectations and then modeling excellence in what you do to achieve them. It comes from having a clear vision and not only acting on it yourself but motivating others to do the same. It comes from listening with modesty, from letting go of control, and from a strong sense of team. And finally, it comes sharing what works with those within and outside your organization, as was so well articulated in Liz’s post.


    These are clearly traits one can exhibit formally in an administrative role, in a hybrid role, while fully in the classroom, or any role in between. What we must do, as teachers, is boldly step into such leadership roles by expanding our sphere of influence. For me, at a school where leadership is formally shared with the teaching staff, it comes relatively easily. But I would submit that it can also occur in a more traditional, hierarchical organization by simply being a role model of teaching excellence: collaborating with peers, knowing & using teaching & learning best practices, doing whatever it takes for all your students to be successful, being a catalyst for positive change, and sharing your passion for learning. That is what I consider to be a nice formula for teacher leadership, regardless of your current title or role. Oh and if you need to leave the classroom on occasion, it’s okay. A true teacher leader has established a level of trust with his/her students such that the expectations of deep learning will still be met.

  • KellyBegani

    Thanks for your insight.

    I have been struggling with the idea of a teacher having time to be a teacher leader.  I noticed one of the commentors is in a teacher leader program and was worried about the amount of time she would need to dedicate to her classroom and to her leadership role also.  I feel the same way as that woman.  I am struggling now with all the demands there are on teachers.  I am struggling with being the best I can be at my job.  And the thought of putting another hat on my head, that of teacher leader, frightens me.  I think of all the additional work it will entail.  “…A teacher’s energy, attention, and time are consumed by the demands of leadership…” is what goes through my mind daily.  But reading your blog gave me pause.  I, too, love my work.  I put everything I have into my job.  I know when I take on additional roles now in my building, I give 100%.  Being a teacher-leader will only energize me even more.  Reading about Sherri make me look into myself and realize it is possible and being a leader will make me a better teacher in my own classroom. 


  • Chris Salamone

    Leadership for college students

    Leadership plays predominent role in deveopment of personality. Especially college students must pocess the skill as the young leaders of tomorrow, one have the passion and energy and … a global vision.Mr Chris Salamone formerly served as a faculty member at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, and served as a leadership curriculum adviser at The University of Central Oklahoma. Chris Salamone works to improve the lives of young people around the world through his many philanthropic endeavors.

  • louisdawson

    Successful Leader

    Well, we can’t achieve both types of success at the same time. Therefore, we should refine our leadership style as well as professional skills at the same time to perform better and produce better outputs. An effective teacher is also being an effective leader; as they are able to utilize their skills in the same way to build their leadership quality, which ultimately improve their teacher profession also. So to become a successful leader, we should implement positive things in our life and develop our strategy.